Tom Sinclair
July 11, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Fear Itself

Current Status
In Season
Walter Mosley
Little, Brown and Company
Mystery and Thriller

We gave it an A-

In the noir genre it’s practically axiomatic that plot is considerably less crucial than mood. Let’s face it: Long after the convoluted story line of, say, Raymond Chandler’s ”The Long Goodbye” has faded from memory, the hypnotic effect of the prose, with its unflinching portrayals of L.A.’s lost and debauched, lingers like an opium hangover. In his latest novel, Fear Itself, Walter Mosley serves up a fittingly Chandleresque tale that features, among other things, a kidnapping, a murder or three, a rare 17th-century book, a stolen necklace, some interracial sex, millionaires both black and white, enough supporting characters to populate another two or three books, and a consistently taut, poetic tone that reminds you why the best mystery fiction qualifies as art.

The setting is 1950s L.A., where African-American narrator Paris Minton owns a small bookstore and tries hard to mind his own business. But since his best friend, a simple but highly moral ex-war hero called Fearless Jones, is a veritable trouble magnet, Minton is soon neck-deep in grief, with almost daily attempts on his life. (As in his other detective series featuring protagonist Easy Rawlins, Mosley makes excellent use of the opportunities for social commentary afforded by placing his characters squarely on the cusp of the civil rights era.)

”Fear”’s various story strands all tie together in the end (I think). But it’s the small, human details that stick with you — like the evocation of the occupants of a ”negro” rooming house, or this description of the anticipation of a financial windfall: ”It was like that span of time when you’ve just met a woman that you want more than anything. She wants you too but you have to wait a day or two so as not to seem improper and tactless.” And consider this explanation for the lack of sidewalks and curbs in L.A.’s suburbs: ”[The rich] didn’t want people to be able to get to them easily, and once they got there they had to do their business and leave because there was no place to dawdle.” Connecting all the plot’s dots is a dauntingly byzantine endeavor, but ”Fear”’s visceral moments are so plentiful that the question of whodunit feels almost irrelevant.

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